Updated: Apr 11
Dogs use many different signals to communicate during play. This communication functions to keep the peace and make sure everyone is having fun. In order for an interaction to be categorized as play, it needs to be voluntary and mutual, with both parties choosing to play and having fun. Play can quickly turn into a fight if an inexperienced puppy is not reading the signals of the dog they’re trying to play with. One of the biggest deficits we see in puppy play is not understanding cut-off signals. Below are some of the top things about cut-off signals that you should understand to help your puppy learn to play with other dogs.
What are cut-off signals?
Cut-off signals are used to avoid conflict and help diffuse high-arousal situations. They are requests for more space or for a specific interaction to end. This is the dog saying, “no thank you,” or “hold on a moment, I need a break.” When both dogs are able to understand and respond to these signals, they serve to moderate play by communicating that one dog needs a break in order to not become over aroused or upset. When dogs listen to each other’s cut-off signals, play can continue with both dogs knowing the other is enjoying the interaction.
Common Cut-off Signals
Head turn and/or turning the body away: This is a request for more space and is used to end or pause interactions
Sitting, lowering body, or laying down: during play, these body positions are used to stop an interaction and allow both dogs a chance to calm down.
Yawning, licking the nose, or flicking the tongue: these signals happen under stress and function as information seeking behaviors, signs of discomfort, ane communication that the dog would like an interaction to slow down, calm down, or end.
Sniffing and other displacement behaviors: a displacement behavior is any behavior used out of context to diffuse social pressure. Pausing during play to sniff, suddenly stopping to scratch, or drinking water when not thirsty are examples of displacement behaviors. Pausing to sniff during play is a fun and polite way to take a break and let both dogs calm down before they come back together.
Why do puppies struggle to respond to cut-off signals?
Puppies, like baby humans, aren’t born with a full understanding of their species’ language; this is developed over time. Just like we need to teach babies to understand our language, puppies need to learn how to understand and respond to the body language of other dogs. Cut-off signals will only effectively work to moderate and facilitate play if the puppy on the receiving end gets the signal, processes the information, and responds accordingly.
Some puppies will begin to learn cut-off signals from their mother and/or littermates when they are very young. However, many puppies do not get to stay with their mom and littermates long enough to learn what these signals mean. Even if a puppy is lucky enough to learn from their mother and/or siblings, their litter may primarily use just a few of the different cut-off signals dogs utilize in play. Different dogs that your puppy plays with in the future may utilize different forms of cut-off signals than those used by their littermates or mom. For this majority of puppies, it is beneficial for us to help them learn what these signals mean, thus avoiding the risk of play turning into a fight, as well as helping the puppy develop the skills they will need to be dog-savvy as an adult.
What happens when a puppy doesn’t respond to cut-off signals?
If your puppy doesn’t understand another dog’s signals, they are likely to keep trying to play when their partner asks them to stop. Your puppy may practice behaviors that the other dog doesn’t like, resulting in the other dog becoming frustrated. Their play partner may even feel the need to resort to aggression in order to move them away. In the human world, this sort of interaction may look like the following:
Imagine you are at a party and someone is asking you to dance when you don’t want to. You say, “no thank you,” but they ask again and again. You move away, but they follow you and continually ask you to dance, reaching towards your hand. You move away faster, but they follow, continuing to make physical contact. You end up in a corner of the room with them in front of you asking if you’d like to dance and grabbing your hand. At this point, you slap their hand away and shout, “I SAID NO!” The person then says “Oh! I thought we were having fun,” and moves away.
Is it best to let them work it out themselves?
The risk of learning through “corrections”: There’s a widely accepted myth that the best way for a puppy to learn appropriate play is through corrections from an adult dog. These corrections are aggressive displays that are used to end interactions if other signals have been ignored. They tend to come in the form of a growl, air snap, or pinning the puppy down. Although this may in fact stop the puppy’s behavior, putting the adult dog in a position in which he is so uncomfortable that he resorts to aggression is not only damaging to the relationship between the dogs, it can lead to more severe aggression between the dogs over time - both from the adult dog towards the puppy, and the reaction of the puppy towards the adult dog.
Risks of learning through correction for the puppy:
• The puppy could get injured.
• The puppy could become frightened and develop a fear of other dogs, with more sensitive puppies being at a higher risk.
• The puppy learns that they should keep going and ignore communicative signals until the other dog aggresses.
• The puppy is taught that the way to end an interaction is to use aggression.
• The puppy learns to practice behavior that may get them in trouble when they get older, since most adult dogs are much more tolerant of puppies than other adults.
Side effects of learning through correction for the adult dog:
• The adult dog learns that their cut-off signals will be ignored, which may reduce their use of this communication in the future.
• The adult dog is taught that they have to use aggression to get the puppy to stop bothering them - the puppy’s behavior stopping reinforces this aggression, and makes it more likely that the dog will use aggression to end interactions in the future
• The correction from the adult dog must be intense enough that the puppy tries to avoid eliciting it in the future, which reinforces escalated aggression.
• It becomes more difficult for the adult dog to form a positive relationship with the puppy when they have to resort to aggression to increase distance.
So how do we teach a puppy to listen to another dog’s signals?
Teach recall. Teach your puppy a recall cue or noise that means, “come to me as fast as you can for a super tasty treat.” Starting in a quiet room with no distractions (including other animals) with your puppy right besides you, make a distinct noise or give a recall cue (such as “come!”) and give your puppy a treat when he looks towards you. Then, from a foot away, give the cue again, and give your puppy a treat when he turns his body towards you. Slowly increase the distance between you and your puppy, and give him a treat as he moves towards you. Since we want our puppy to be excited to run back to us, use an excited voice, and consider adding in a fun game of tug when your puppy gets to you. Once your puppy can successfully and consistently recall from across a quiet room, you can begin adding distractions (examples below). Remember that as you add distractions, you will need to significantly decrease the distance between you and your puppy to set him up for success.
Examples of distractions around which to practice, from what is often least difficult to most difficult. A stationary toy, a toy that’s moving, a quiet human, a human who is engaging with the puppy, a human holding food, a known dog behind a gate, a known dog quietly laying in the same room, a known dog who is moving around the room, outside of a dog park. Once your puppy is 100% successful with their recall at each level of distraction you can use this recall in play.
Use recall to teach cut-off signals. Give your puppy the opportunity to play with a friendly, adult dog and watch closely for cut-off signals. As soon as you see a signal from the other dog, recall your puppy to you and give them a big reward for coming. Be consistent and always recall your puppy as soon as you see cut-off signals from the other dog.
Reward what you want to see. When your puppy does respond appropriately to a cut-off signal, praise them, give them a tasty treat right where they are, and let them keep playing.
Practice. Learning to respond to cut-off signals in play is a process, and puppies are constantly learning when and how to interact with the other animals in their environment. By practicing this in every dog to dog interaction from puppyhood to adulthood (around 2-3), you can ensure the best chance of success in dog play.
Why it works. Your puppy will learn that when another dog turns their head, licks their lips, or sits down, the best thing for them to do is to stop and run over to you! As your puppy practices this behavior, they will begin to run out of play automatically when they see these signals from the other dog, significantly decreasing the chance of conflict.